Monday, January 26, 2009

LUCO at Meany Hall

It’s always a thrill to watch a group of artists rise to the occasion. The artists I’m thinking of here are the Lake Union Civic Orchestra and the occasion was their concert on Saturday night at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall. This was the first time they had performed at Meany, which is a larger auditorium than their usual venue in Town Hall. And at first the larger space seemed to be presenting them with some problems. The all-German program opened with Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries and the strings seemed to have difficulty filling the concert hall. They seemed a little weak, watery. They needed to project more. However, since most of the heavy lifting in Ride of the Valkyries is done by the brass and percussion, this wasn’t too much of a problem. The piece came off with a bang, even though it struck me that the strings hadn’t quite found their groove.

However, when baritone Clayton Brainerd came out to sing Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music the groove was found. Brainerd is a mountain of man – well over six feet tall, broad-shouldered, big-bellied, a line-backer with a voice to match. He has presence. One pities the actors who have to play mere giants opposite him in Das Rheingod. Now, Brainerd had no problem projecting into the auditorium. And whether it was his example or the power of the music or the excellent conducting of Christophe Chagnard, the strings finally sang, easily filling the hall to match Brainerd’s beautiful performance.

Mahler’s First Symphony made up the second half of the evening and that, too, was outstanding: fresh, engaging, rousing when it needed to be and at times beautifully meditative. Of course, if you don’t believe me, you should at least believe the behavior of the two or three dozen children in the audience, none of whom started whining or crying to leave during the concert. (Even though I did see one or two tots jolt awake suddenly when the final movement’s fortissimo hit them.) By the end of the evening there was no doubt that this ensemble was capable of playing larger venues.

LUCO is a non-profit orchestra whose performers are almost all volunteers. And part of the charm of the concert was the cozy ambiance between the musicians and the audience, many of whom are family members or friends (full disclosure – I know no one in LUCO.). During the intermission many of the musicians could be seen socializing in the lobby with the rest of us. These are people who love their art. They are passionate about music.

Hopefully, if they ever again decide they want to just let loose and kick out the jams, mofos, (note to Jimmy Page: Wagner is the hammer of the Gods!) they will return to Meany Hall. Till then, you can find them at their regular home at Town Hall where they will be performing two more concerts for the season, one on April 17th, the other on June 19th.


Friday, January 23, 2009

I Yawn, Therefore I Am

Now, there are few lives as devoid of drama as that of the 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes, and Roberto Rossellini’s 1974 film Cartesius proves this. It strains at holding the viewer’s interest. After all, a life of study and scholarly contemplation doesn’t present a lot of opportunities for dramatic action. It suffers from a general shortage of dramatic tension. Will Descartes write that treatise he keeps promising everyone? Will he more faithfully maintain his correspondence with his friends to tell them his ideas? Will he stay in Holland or return to Paris? Has he found the peace and serenity he so dearly needs for his work? There’s not a lot here for Rossellini to build on. See Descartes cogitate. Cogitate, Descartes, cogitate.

This film is as dry and stiff as the algebra which its subject matter helped create. At 2 hours and 40 minutes, it is monotonous. Rossellini’s visual style, normally austere, is here pared down completely. Every scene seems to have the same rhythm. We begin with a wide shot of a group of people, usually in a large brightly lit room (tavern, lecture hall, salon). As the characters talk and talk and talk, sometimes the camera will slowly zoom in to a medium shot. Then the camera slowly zooms out. Close-ups are rare. Reaction shots are almost nonexistent (I counted only one). From time to time, Mario Nascimbene’s dreary atonal music (composed of orchestra, harpsichord, and bells) will surge in the background. It is all very off-putting and alienating. This film is so cold it makes Kubrick look warm and fuzzy.

Ugo Cardea does the best he can playing Descartes. He is reserved and aloof. Dressed in a large hat, a black outfit with a long cape, shiny boots and a sword always at his side, he resembles (as he struts around, pontificating, with arms akimbo) nothing less than a somber one of the Three Musketeers. The rest of the cast are forgettable since they only serve as intellectual strait-men for Descartes to philosophize with (or at, to be precise.) This film is not entirely devoid of interest. It contains one of the creepiest looking automatons you’ll ever see. And the white bird-like masks which people have to wear when the plague breaks out are hauntingly surreal.

Still, this film is a dud. Although it does a tolerably good job of explaining Descartes's philosophy and his importance to science, a more traditional documentary, rather than this so-called docudrama, would have been better. Drama can be an excellent vehicle to discuss ideas – as the works of George Bernard Shaw and Tom Stoppard show – but it has to be done with a light hand. And Roberto Rossellini has many talents but deftness of touch is not one of them. He is going to educate us for our own good whether we like it or not. Subsequently, the dialogue in Cartesius is bookish, ponderous and slightly ludicrous. For instance, here is Descartes expounding his ideas in an elegant salon surrounded by listeners:

Descartes: …In my treatise, I also prove, with absolute clarity, the existence in me and in the world of a thinking substance distinct from the corporeal, but which of these two is the nature of God? I shall prove that God can certainly not be a composite of two substances: the corporeal and the thinking, because the mixture would be a sign of imperfection.

Fancily-Dressed Lady: Dear René, you speak of the existence of the soul and of God in a very unusual way. You have moved me.

First Gentleman: Your design is very bold and terribly shrewd.

Second Gentleman: But your division of reality into corporeal substance and thinking substance will raise many objections.

Descartes: I shall answer them all. Meanwhile, I must publish my treatise as soon as possible.
Cartesius was originally made for Italian television. Back in the early 60s Rossellini held a press conference and announced that movies were a dead art form. Why he would adopt such a petulant attitude is beyond me. After all, when you’re a famous Italian film director who also gets to bang Ingrid Bergman on a regular basis I think it’s safe to say that the movies have been very, very good to you. Stranger still, he felt that television (and Italian television, at that) was the art form of the future. Fired by this educational zeal, he began to crank out dramas based on the lives of important historical figures. Three of them have recently been assembled in a box set by The Criterion Collection as part of their no-frills Eclipse series. Cartesius is one, the other two are about Pascal and the Medicis (now that one could be good - lots of stabbing and poisoning). Separately, Criterion has also released Rossellini’s The Taking of Power by Louis XIV. How these films fare in comparison to Cartesius, I have yet to discover (and I will let you know when I do) but if Cartesius proves anything it is that an artist can sell out his talent to his own worst pedagogical ambitions just as readily (and ruinously) as he can sell out to political or commercial ones.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire
by Joseph Epstein

If I had to list the one video clip I watch most on YouTube there would be many contenders. But the winner would not be the amazing ending of Lost in Translation or the awesome confrontation between Gandalf and the Witch-King of Angmar which was deleted from the theatrical version of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Nor would it be clips of the comic genius of Alec Baldwin or the comic genius of Sam Kinison. It wouldn’t even be clips of large-breasted Japanese girls cavorting in bikinis. Oh, no. The winner would this (from Swing Time):

This book on Fred Astaire is so bad I loved it. I couldn’t put it down. Joe Epstein is an exceptionally good bad writer. In the future I will purchase any book he writes for the pure joy of watching the amazing – and unintentionally hilarious – things he can do with (to?) our language. He is a linguistic car-wreck, and yet a delight to read for that very reason. This is a rare talent. Most bad writers are boring or repetitive or simply lack any feel for words. Not so with Joe. He is fresh and original. He writes flowingly, is opinionated and moves things along briskly. He has a feel for our language. And that feel is wrong. Words, grammar, metaphors, syntax – scarcely a single part of the English language doesn’t get tripped up, run over and mangled in these 191 pages.

Epstein writes in a jaunty, conversational tone which at times degenerates into showbiz clichés: “This was it, Broadway, the big time.” “Whatever the magical ingredients that made for movie charm, [Astaire] possessed them. He lit up the joint – any joint he may have been in – turning the silver screen quite golden.” In comparison to the refined and elegant Myrna Loy, Ginger Rogers “was more in the mode of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of girl. But what you were likely to get wasn’t bad at all; it was pretty damn fine, in fact.” He even does sound effects: bang! poof!

Some of his metaphors are laughable. After returning from their triumphal dancing tour of England, Fred and his older sister Adele “were leading the good life, the high life, a fine breeze stirring them gently on their way in the fast lane.” Later he tells us: “The young [film producer] Pandro S. Berman saw that the Astaire-Rogers coupling was the white donkey upon which he and RKO could ride into Jerusalem. Like Astaire, Berman soon acquired a ten percent share in the gross of those movies, and so perhaps rode into Jerusalem instead in a Rolls-Royce.”

Beginning a sentence about how Astaire looks better on screen in black and white than in color, Epstein adopts a distinctly unusual syntax: “Something there is inherently glamorous about the combination of black and white…” Yes, there is, Master Yoda, yes, there is.

Here he seems to think that parts of speech are interchangeable. “No one has ever been able to explain the clustering of talent that shows up at certain points in history: [for instance] the genius composers who arrived in Austria and Germany…”

Most assessments of the Astaire-Rogers duo have treated the latter as a lesser talent. Epstein tries to praise her and the results are hilarious:

Despite all the talk of Fred Astaire bringing “class” to the partnership, it might be closer to the truth to say that it was Ginger Rogers who brought class – specifically something of the lower middle or maybe even the working class. In pursuing Ginger Rogers in the movies they did together, Astaire may have been going a bit down-market, in the way that Charles Swann goes after Odette de Crecy, the cocotte of Marcel Proust’s great novel.
And also:

In a great many stills of the two dancing, one notes Astaire’s large hands around Rogers’s waist, rather like a short but firm leash, always in place lest she wander too far.
And then there’s this one:

[Rogers’s] kittenish sexiness, with a strong aroma of the witty behind it [WTF!], is what Fred Astaire needed to play against to show himself to greatest advantage…Ginger, as the name suggests, provided the perfect seasoning.
So, if I’ve got this right, Epstein’s idea of praising Ginger Rogers is to compare her to, by turns, a whore, a dog and a condiment.

This book is light and fluffy, and Epstein often struggles to come up with something profound to say about his subject. If, like me, you don’t know much about Fred Astaire, you’ll pick up some interesting information about him. I learned, for instance, that Astaire wore a toupé, that his shoe size was 8½, and that he was no shorter than 5’ 7” but no taller than 5’ 10” (it turns our that his exact height is in dispute (and I didn’t know that either!)). I learned that when George Gershwin died the last word he uttered was: “Astaire.” (Are they sure it wasn’t: “Despair”?)

I also learned about Astaire’s early years when he and Adele were a famous dance team. She’s quite a character: coarse, foul-mouthed, beautiful and sexually precocious. At seventeen she admitted “I’ve already got quite used to people grabbing my fanny backstage – that is, when they weren’t all homos.” When she caught someone looking up her dress she asked him whether he saw “the ace of spades.” “Why the fuck shouldn’t I say what I feel?” she once replied when the prim Fred apologized for her behavior. In her mid-thirties she left the stage and married into the English aristocracy. But her spirit was undimmed: she once made a needlepoint cushion for Fred and his wife: one side depicted flowers, the other read simply “Fuck Off.”

This book, like most encomiums of movie stars, contains insight and idiocy in pretty equal measure (and I’ve given examples of the later) – but it does, nonetheless, contain insight. For example, Epstein makes some perceptive comments about the difference between Astaire’s charm and that of William Powell:
Contrast Fred Astaire with William Powell, whose suavity helped make the Thin Man movies so delightful. Powell in his movie persona is sophisticated in a way Astaire in his movie persona is distinctly not. Powell’s character is world-weary, properly cynical, looking forward only to another of his perfectly confected cocktails. Astaire breaks out the champagne from time to time, and in one of his movies (The Sky’s the Limit) he actually gets drunk, but his drunkenness turn out to be no more than an excuse to do a dance atop the bar. Like Astaire, Powell is always handsomely tailored, lives in starkly white plush apartments, drives flashy cars. But the good life, one might say, is all that is left to him, since he has previously seen the rest of life for what it really is. Powell’s lack of enthusiasm, his witty cynicism, are among the chief marks of his sophistication; Astaire, urbane yet not entirely sophisticated, retains his enthusiasm, for the girl, for the song, above all for the dance.
This pleasant little wisp of a book (published as part of the Icon series by Yale University Press) will make for a few hours of very entertaining reading. I only wish that it had been more lavishly illustrated, we only get two rather measly photographs. As for the text, I wouldn’t have them change one crazy word.

Thursday, January 08, 2009